The power of team: life lessons from former baseball pro Dave Dravecky

It’s baseball season and there isn’t anything about baseball that can’t be compared to life, be it personal or professional. Below are excerpts from keynote speaker Dave Dravecky at the 2015 Frame Building Expo in Louisville. He shared his journey from becoming a pro baseball pitcher to his career-ending battle with cancer, and life-lessons learned along the way.

Following his presentation, he spent time greeting visitors at the Swenson Shear booth. Dravecky’s son, Jonathan, is the CEO of Swenson Shear.

“This picture is of me throwing for the San Francisco Giants. I’m reminded of how I defined my worth when I look at this baseball card. Because to be honest with you, my worth was all wrapped up on the back of this card where the statistics are. My worth was in whether or not I was good enough on the playing field. My worth was in what that brought to me as a result of … good performance and in negotiating a contract at the end of the season. My worth was wrapped up in the stuff that I had… And I think what happens is, diversity comes into our lives to change that perspective.”

His career start
Despite talent, Dravecky was never recruited for college baseball, so attended college locally at Youngstown State University, Ohio, where he continued to hone his skills as a pitcher. After graduation, he was drafted in the 21st round by the Pittsburgh Pirates and began his work in the minor leagues.

“And we hear all these horror stories about bus rides and … that’s not true. It’s a wonderful, wonderful journey. It’s kind of like, when you hire apprentices and you’re helping to teach them that trade and eventually, hopefully they become proficient at it, and they’re able to move into a place where now you can trust them with that gift you helped them develop. That’s what the minor league was for me…I could develop those skills and hopefully get to the big leagues, because I had this dream as a little kid that some day I would be like Sandy Koufax.”

Career highlights
Dravecky would move up the major leagues in 1982 with the San Diego Padres. A subsequent move landed him with the San Francisco Giants in 1987.

“We went into the post season of play in 1987, and I pitched the best two games of my career, and I tell you, life could not get any better…

“Opening day, 1988, breaking out of spring training, Roger Craig, the manager of the San Francisco Giants, said: ‘Dave, I’m giving you the baseball on opening day. You’re our starting pitcher.’ The most tremendous honor for any pitcher in the major leagues was to open up for his ball club on opening day.

“Picture this: Chaves Ravine (Dodger Stadium), 55,000 people in a packed house and it’s Dave Dravecky versus Fernando Valenzuela. You couldn’t have painted a better picture. That day we won 5 to 1, and the thing I was the most proud of, is that I hit a double off Fernando. He threw that lazy screwball and it went right off the center field wall. It was just an incredible day. And I was on my way to winning 20 games.”

A career ending diagnosis
By now a small lump on Dravecky’s arm was beginning to grow. Suspecting it was nothing serious, he and his wife were dumbfounded by the diagnosis of cancer. He was just 32 years old with a young family.

“…the doctors were telling me, outside of a miracle you will never pitch again. I thought to myself: at this moment I was really thinking a whole lot about pitching, I want to survive. I want to live. How are you going to help me get to that place? And yet at the same time there was something inside of me that said, you’re not going to quit, Dave. Just because there’s an obstacle in front of you, you’re not going to walk away from something you have loved your whole life….I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering if I could have made that comeback. So from that point forward everything I did was about trying to get back to pitching again.”

The comeback
“Ten months later – 10 months after the doctors said ‘outside of a miracle, you will would never pitch again’, I was standing on the mound, getting ready to pitch and this is the actual photo from that day, August 10, 1989, the come-back game.

“I was overwhelmed as I stood on that mound. I was so thankful God had given me the opportunity to do it all again…That day we went on to beat the Cincinnati Reds 4 to 3. It was unbelievable. And I thought, ok, this cancer stuff was just a hiccup and now I’m going to get on with my life.”

The last pitch
Five days after his comeback, the team headed to Montreal, where Dravecky’s baseball career came to an abrupt and unexpected end. The moment was captured by a young boy in the stands that day, and recounted to Dravecky this past January 2015. It came via a package in the mail.

A letter with the box takes him back to his last pro game.

“I have no idea who this man is [who sent the box], but I find out he’s a huge baseball fan and he’s been following my career since hearing of the diagnosis of cancer. And he said [in 1989] all of a sudden I find you’re making this comeback and you had your first win in Candlestick Park and now you’re in Montreal, my home town, so I wanted to go to the ball game to watch you pitch. Here I was in the front row right next to the Montreal dugout watching you pitch…We’re all inspired by what we’re watching, because you were never expected to make this recovery. So here we are in the 6th inning, and you rear back and you throw that pitch to Tim Raines, and your arm breaks. We all hear the break.

“But what you don’t know is that when you released the ball it went into the Expo’s dugout and the bat boy picked it up. It so happens that the bat boy and I knew each other and when he picked up that ball, he looked at me, and I said: ‘give it to me’. And the next thing I know, he’s tossing the baseball to me.’

“And Dave, in the box, is your last pitch.’”

The cancer returns
The cancer reoccurred three times. There was a staff infection, radiation treatments, intravenous antibiotics. Eventually it led to the amputation of Dravecky’s pitching arm and shoulder. The amputation itself promised relief.

“For 8 months I walked around with an arm that was immobile, and I had gotten tired of it,” Dravecky said. “When [the doctor] said it was time to remove it, I said good, let’s get rid of it.”

Temporary relief
The amputation provided only temporary relief. One of Dravecky’s biggest battles was yet to be won: overcoming his identity crisis.

“I started to realize that there was a lot of stuff I wasn’t dealing with and it’s starting to percolate. And I was a very angry man.

“I had to ask a very important question; if not baseball, does Dave Dravecky still have worth?”

It would take a long time before he would be able to answer that to his own satisfaction.

Final lessons
“Today I’m a very different man than I was 20 plus years go. Cancer has taught me an awful lot about life. I’ve come to realize through the good, the bad and the ugly, something important: it’s not what you do that matters most, it’s who you are…

Following his keynote address, Dave Dravecky (left) pictured with his son Jonathan at the Swenson Shear booth.

Following his keynote address, Dave Dravecky (left) spent time with visitors at the Swenson Shear booth. He is pictured with his son, Jonathan, who is CEO of Swenson.

“I have come to discover the significance and power of relationships. It’s really interesting and rather ironic, that it took something like cancer to see the value in my teammates. All those years I played baseball. All those years there was a group of 24 guys around me that played a significant role in my journey and in my story in fulfilling my dream as a baseball player. I learned a very valuable lesson about team. Because I realized when I walked out on the mound, I was a pitcher. I wasn’t a first baseman, a second baseman, a shortstop, a third baseman. I wasn’t a left fielder, or a center fielder or a right fielder. I wasn’t a catcher. I wasn’t a utility player. I wasn’t a relief pitcher. I was a starting pitcher. I was only one of 5 starting pitchers, so I couldn’t pitch every day and I couldn’t pitch every inning….

“I was Dave Dravecky, who had an 88 mph fastball at best. My forte was being able to control the strike zone. So as the result of that, when I threw a pitch I wanted to make contact with the bat, I didn’t want to miss it, because, when I made contact, my ball moved so much−9 times out of 10 it was a ground ball. Which meant, I needed that second baseman, and the shortstop, and the third baseman, and the first base, and every now and then, when there was a flyball, I needed that outfielder. And now looking back, realizing of the people God brought into my life during the difficult time in my life, the value of teammates.

“When you understand that relationally, it will affect everything you do. It’s not about success for your companies. I think if you’re desiring to be successful with a company, you’re saying it’s all about the numbers on the back of the card that matter most. I’m not here to say that success is wrong. You don’t go into business to lose money. I don’t want to diminish the importance of having success in that way. But if that is all you’re in it for, then I think you’re missing out on something special.

“I’ve come to learn that it’s not about success, it’s about significance. And a company with significance places a value on its people. It places a value on the people they work for.

“Then when you realize the significance of your company, you start creating what we hear about – legacy: the impact it has on the next generation, and the position they will take over. That’s a powerful thing.

“It’s not what you do that matters most, it’s who you are. When you get who you are, it will reflect on everything you do.

“When you can live in the freedom that there’s so much more to learn, then [life] becomes a incredible adventure.”


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